March 21, 2017 – Assembly Restaurant in Santa Cruz is all about showcasing local purveyors and that extends to the show-stopping new craft cocktail program it has been rolling out over the past few weeks.
“The fun thing about our skill set—like in the kitchen—it’s seasonal and flexible according to what purveyors have to offer,” says chef Kendra Baker, co-founder of Assembly, the Picnic Basket and the Penny Ice Creamery. “We’re able to shift and move in much the same way as we do in the kitchen.”
The afternoon I was there, the copper-top bar was piled with fresh Meyer lemons grown by Daniel Paduano at Abounding Harvest Farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Bar manager Zane Griffin was shaking up a Pink Lady cocktail mixing local Venus Spirits Gin Blend No. 02 and apple brandy.
Griffin is somewhat of an expert on area farms and food artisans as he used to run an online ordering service called Santa Cruz Local Foods. His gentle demeanor has been a fixture at Santa Cruz-area farmers’ markets, where he worked for Route 1 Farm and Companion Bakeshop. He has also helped out at numerous farm dinners for Route 1, as well as Jim Denevan’s Outstanding in the Field.
All of these experiences have come together in his new gig as Assembly’s chief mixologist. “I kind of had a feeling this was going to be my calling,” he says. “It’s like opening a kitchen behind the bar and then there’s the customer service element and so much history and knowledge about the cocktail culture to learn.”
“I’m passionate about research and the stories behind the drinks,” he adds.
Assembly launched its cocktail program with a short list of seven specialty drinks, including one called Unicorn’s Blood—which already has legions of fans, including Baker and Griffin. He mixed up a dark red one for me and it tasted like Christmas, a delicious combination of Silk Road spices and what I thought was pomegranate juice. But no, it turned out to be Amaro di Angostura, bitters, lime juice and cane juice. You’ve got to try it!
Another popular Assembly cocktail, Putin’s Pony, is a nod to the current political situation in Washington, so named by co-founder Zach Davis. It’s a twist on the traditional Moscow Mule, using St. George’s Hangar 1 vodka made in Alameda, infused in-house with ginger and kaffir lime.
Other concoctions are inspired by the influential New York cocktail bar Death & Company, such as one called Company Tea, that combines Rittenhouse Rye infused with chamomile, vermouth, aperol and yellow chartreuse.
Jeff Emery’s locally-produced Osocalis brandy can be tried at the bar and Assembly puts its own spin on classic cocktails—for instance, their Manhattan is adorned with Pinot Cherries from Tabitha Stroup’s Friend in Cheeses Jam Co. All cocktails are priced at $11.
Davis says it was a stroke of luck for Assembly to win its new liquor license last November in the first ABC license lottery to take place locally in some ten years. So it is definitely a program still in development.
“We’re still learning about people’s expectations and what they’re ordering, but it’s fun to explore and find out what happens,” says Griffin.
The bar manager is also an avid gardener, cultivating just over an acre off Ivy Lane in the Live Oak neighborhood. He’s looking forward to growing herbs, cucumbers and sweet Jimmy Nardello peppers this summer to use behind the bar, along with vegetables like kale and winter squash for the kitchen.
He’s also working on creating a new tequila cocktail and something using trendy mescal.
“I can’t wait for fall to do something warm with spiced pears or spiced apples,” he adds.
Assembly offers a happy hour Monday to Friday, with half-price beer and wine, but so far cocktails are not included.
The restaurant is also debuting Thursday night musical performances to enjoy with your cocktails. The first one featured popular Santa Cruz singer/songwriter Nick Gallant, who just happens to be Baker’s talented husband!